On Sept. 13, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)—Canada’s national police service—arrested Cameron Ortis, formerly the director-general of the service’s National Intelligence Coordination Center. Ortis was one of the RCMP’s top civilian officials. He joined the Mounties armed with expertise on crime in East Asia and developed an exemplary service record, impressing his co-workers with his intelligence and work ethic. He served as former RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson’s “most elite adviser on issues related to national security” and gained access to some of the most secret national and allied intelligence that the RCMP analyzes.
As the Globe and Mail, a national newspaper, has revealed, authorities first suspected that something was wrong in March 2018. At the time, a joint RCMP-FBI probe was investigating a Canadian-based company, Phantom Secure, which helped drug traffickers and criminal networks “avoid law enforcement detection through the use of encrypted cell phones.” American authorities arrested Vincent Ramos, Phantom Secure’s chief executive, in March 2018. While analyzing his email inbox, American investigators found an offer to sell RCMP secrets to Ramos—the offeree was later identified as Cameron Ortis. In his email to Ramos, Ortis also leaked two or three pages of Mounties’ files, as a sample of the information he could provide.
Ortis has since been charged under both the Criminal Code as well as the rarely employed Security of Information Act. Parliament created the Security of Information Act as a set of amendments to the Official Secrets Act in the immediate aftermath of 9/11; the new act modernized espionage provisions. As Ian Austen has written, the charges “indicate that Mr. Ortis is accused of passing on or offering secrets in 2015, and then gathering information in 2018 and this year with an intent to do the same.” Ortis has been charged with violating three sections of the Security of Information Act. Under Section 14(1), “every person permanently bound to secrecy commits an offence who, intentionally and without authority, communicates or confirms special operational information.” Ortis faces two charges under Section 22—the section that governs acts “done in preparation of the commission of [an] offence.” Section 22(1)(b) covers “obtaining, retaining, or gaining access to any information,” while 22(1)(e) covers the possession of “any device, apparatus or software useful for concealing the content of information or for surreptitiously communicating, obtaining or retaining information.” Ortis’s bail hearing is set for Oct. 17-18.
This is not the first time that a Canadian intelligence official has been accused of selling or distributing classified information. Jeffrey Paul Delisle, a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy, made history as the first person to be charged under the Security of Information Act. In 2013, he was sentenced to 20 years for communicating and attempting to communicate safeguarded information to the Russian military. Delisle, who was granted full parole earlier this year, worked at the Trinity naval intelligence center at Canadian Forces Base Halifax as a threat assessment analyst and smuggled secrets out on a USB key.
In addition, Canadian citizen Qing Quentin Huang is currently facing charges under the Security of Information Act for “conspiracy to provide Canadian military secrets” to the Chinese government. Huang worked for Lloyd’s Register, a subcontractor to the shipbuilding firm Irving, which builds vessels for the Royal Canadian Navy.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki has revealed that the service is still working to assess the “operational damage” from Ortis’s leaks, not just to Canadian intelligence agencies but also to allied intelligence services. In the meantime, Ortis’s arrest has sparked a larger conversation about vetting procedures within Canadian agencies. The Canadian Press has reported that the RCMP failed to have employees undergo a polygraph test during top-level security screenings, even though a “2014 federal standard requires a lie-detector test for the highest security category.”
Canada Condemns Turkish Invasion of Northern Syria
On Oct. 9, Turkey launched an “air and ground assault” on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia group that has for years fought the Islamic State with U.S. support and alongside American troops. In March of this year, the SDF conquered Baghouz, the Islamic State’s final enclave. The Turkish attack came after President Trump pulled American troops from the Syria-Turkey border. As Turkish forces and Syrian Arab paramilitary allies moved into Syria on Wednesday, Chrystia Freeland, Canadian minister of foreign affairs, lambasted Turkey’s decision on Twitter. In a series of posts, Minister Freeland firmly condemned Turkey’s military incursion, contending that such “unilateral action risks undermining the stability of an already-fragile region, exacerbating the humanitarian situation and rolling back progress achieved by the Global Coalition Against Daesh, of which Turkey is a member.” She commended, however, the “important role that Turkey has played in hosting Syrian refugees” and stressed that “legitimate security concerns should be addressed diplomatically and in full respect of international law.” Her comments came a day before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to send 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to Europe if European governments labeled the Turkish military operation as an occupation.
Canada’s policies toward the Kurds are far from straightforward. Since the 1980s, the Turkish government has waged an on-and-off military conflict against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), both within and beyond Turkey’s borders. Like the United States, the Canadian government has designated the PKK as a listed terrorist entity and notes that the group has “led a campaign of guerrilla warfare and terrorism” in an effort to create an “independent Kurdish state in southeast Turkey and in northern Iraq.” The SDF, which consists of a number of different organizations, is dominated by Kurdish fighters, many of whom have deep connections to the PKK. Turkish opposition to the SDF is thus long-standing.
Although Canada does not currently “have any defence assets in Syria,” Canadian troops have worked with Kurdish partners in the Middle East. This column’s June post noted that Canadian special forces operators in Iraq trained and fought alongside Kurdish Peshmerga forces against the Islamic State until “an outbreak of violence between Kurdish and Iraqi government forces in October 2017” forced the Canadian government to end its assistance program. Some 250 Canadian Armed Forces members are still deployed to Iraq as part of NATO Mission Iraq, which is designed to train the Iraqi military and does not work with the Kurdish Peshmerga.
President Erdogan has announced that he wants to create a “‘safe zone’ free of Kurdish fighters.” Multiple analysts have predicted that the Turkish offensive will further destabilize Syria and could help the Islamic State replenish its ranks. President Trump has pulled U.S. troops from the broader northern Syria region, raising fears that Turkish troops and allies will be able to commit war crimes with impunity. In a video available online, Turkish-backed Arab militiamen executed two Kurdish fighters on Oct. 12, in what the New York Times has called “a possible war crime.” Moreover, as Turkish forces engage SDF fighters, the fate of thousands of captured Islamic Statefighters and their family members is suddenly up in the air. The SDF holds some 11,000 Islamic State detainees, including 2,000 foreign fighters and an estimated 32 Canadians in camps in northeastern Syria. Canadian national security commentators have for months pushed the government to repatriate and prosecute Canadian Islamic State members held by the SDF. Ottawa’s failure to do that has led to the possibility that these militants and their families, in the case of an SDF retreat, might be able to join Islamic State cells spread out over Iraq and Syria. The New York Times has reported that the Islamic State still has some “18,000 remaining fighters in Iraq and Syria” organized in “sleeper cells and strike teams.”
At least some commentators and politicians are calling for stronger action by the government. Green Party leader Elizabeth May has publicly argued that NATO needs to “review Turkey’s membership in NATO.” Justin Ling, writing for the National Post, has argued that Canadian development money to Turkey “should be up for debate” and that Parliament should impose Magnitsky sanctions on individuals such as President Erdogan. Ottawa has since ceased new weapons sales to Turkey; last year, Canada exported more than $115 million in defense-related goods to Turkey.
In Other News
- Houthi rebels in Yemen released footage on Houthi-run Al Masirah TV and Al Jazeera, depicting the aftermath of an engagement with Saudi forces as well as captured Canadian-made light armored vehicles (LAVs). Radio Canada counted “at least five damaged or destroyed LAVs” produced by the Ontario-based General Dynamics Land Systems, a subsidiary of the American-based General Dynamics. Houthi rebels have been fighting against an Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Canada sells military equipment to Saudi Arabia, and some of that equipment appears to have been used by Saudi troops in Yemen. Furthermore, Trudeau’s Liberal government has approved Saudi Arabia’s purchase of over 900 armored vehicles from General Dynamics Land Systems and has adhered to that deal despite tensions in the Saudi-Canadian relationship. The left-of-center New Democratic Party (NDP) has consistently slammed Trudeau’s decision, with NDP MP Hélène Laverdière arguing that Canada is “potentially … complicit in international human rights violations.”